Great Customer Service: It Lives!

5 Jan

The most extraordinary thing happened to me today.  I was received great customer service.  As unbelievable as this sounds, it’s true.

I’m not sure if there’s one particular cause to what’s created this incredible lack of good, or even just adequate customer service.  When I go out shopping, one thing I’ve driven 10 miles out of the way for is literally the one, single thing missing from the shelf.  It could even be an item that should be on any store shelf within a half-mile, but if I need it, it simply will not be there.

I’ll give you an example: For some of my Xmas baking I needed peppermint patties stat.  I visited the three full-sized groceries near me, all within a half-mile of my home and I swear, surrounded by mountains of any other bagged, fun-sized and mass-produced candy you could ever want, there was an empty black chasm right where the peppermint patties were supposed to be.  In all three stores!

And what’s worse, there was no one anywhere to tell me, while looking anywhere but at me and in a diction that only another stoner can understand, that um, no, there are no more in the back, sorry.  Of course, if I had heard that, I would taken a pair of pliers to the clerk’s braces.

This is the sort of service I expected after an order of mine went pear-shaped at http://shop.nlzwear.com/.  Rumor has it that I may have entered the coupon code incorrectly or something, but I don’t know about that.  I find it hard to believe I could ever do anything wrong, ever.

In any case, I submitted the order only to see what would’ve been a monstrous charge on my card.  I immediately called and emailed, sounding no less like the very mean grandma who will not be turned away.  You know, the one with the expired coupons at the grocery store. Or anywhere.

For good measure, I even tweeted that I needed to be contacted, figuring that a nationwide shaming should do the trick.  What can I say?  I expected the worst.

Instead, Chris contacted me almost immediately and was very responsive despite my cold fish of a request.  He did not have to cancel my order—he would’ve been in his right, honestly, to profit from my ineptitude.  But he didn’t.  He kindly canceled my order so I could resubmit it properly, saving me, but costing him, 80 easy bucks.

So here’s to you, Chris at NLZWear!  I really appreciate that you helped me even though I was a complete cad.  I hope sincerely that you get rich beyond your wildest dreams selling those awesome socks.

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&*(@$(*! Camera

2 Jan

Once upon a time, there was a nice camera named Kodak.  It was a proud camera with a lot of megapixels and, depending on the settings, could even catch my cat doing cute things.  Kodak knew it was better than its old coworker Vivitar, which only shoots fast enough to catch the cat’s anus as it runs away.

Then one day Kodak, proud camera that she was, decided to shoot only what she deemed worthy of those massive megapixels, and sod the rest.  “Documentation’s not my game anymore, bitch!” she cried. “You and your food can just jam it!”

This is what I imagine was happening as I wiped butter, flour and who knows what else off the Kodak, which I believed held the photographic evidence of fudge that looked like vomit, brown sugar meringue that shrunk like wool in hot water and cookies that deflated like a flat chest.  And my ego.

Now, you might think it’s a blessing that I don’t have all my shots, but it isn’t.  It’s important to make a note of one’s mistakes so they’re not repeated.  It’s also important to know that those of us who are quite good at something still—or rather, constantly–make some fantastic mistakes.

I will have to do my best then to describe for you what happened.  I can tell you right away, though, that my biggest error was trying new things while under a time crunch.  I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that this will always break your heart, but as a baker my overconfidence, which I know damn well never works out for anyone, wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me.  It seems I thrive on failure the same as I thrive on success.

So sit back and check out my failures.  A little schaudenfreude never hurt anyone.

Easy Like Lionel Richie

2 Jan

Rest assured, there are more failures to write up for you, my nine readers (see below to start), but before I retire for the evening, I’d like to leave you with a small little trifle that turned into a big success.

I mentioned in an earlier post that making the best holiday treats means making small, handheld, easily transportable treats.  This means that sweet little candy-ish things that’re made assembly-line style while you’re parked in front of a “completely legal” feed of, say, weekday football games…well, these treats are as perfect as that sentence isn’t.

This brings us to it, and it’s based on the very popular chocolate-coated Ritz-and-peanut-butter sandwiches that a lot of people make this time of year.  I love those things.  But for these new treats, I came across some perfectly round pretzel crackers, a little larger than a quarter.  A freak for all things salty and crunchy, I knew there had to be a good use for these.

First, I ate used an entire bag myself while watching an episode of “Burn Notice.”

But, I also managed—somehow–to save the remaining bag and thought that instead of peanut butter, I could make use of a jar of Nutella that’s been taunting me since I bought it in the summer.  Honestly, why do I do this to myself?  This is a carb-free house.  Usually.

So, two pretzel crackers, salt side in, Nutella and… what kind of chocolate to coat?  After several taste tests it was decided to go with white chocolate, which would also provide a really nice color contrast.

There are a couple of tricks to making these successfully, the first of which is the most important: As Nutella liquefies quickly under heat, make sure these are fully chilled before dipping.  Unlike peanut butter, to which saturated fats are added for stability, Nutella is gooey paste, made of hazelnuts, cocoa solids and here in North America, modified (with more unsaturated fat) palm oil.  It doesn’t stand on its own.

To keep the flavors balanced—they’re all very strong—keep the layer of Nutella pretty thin, and add about a TBL of shortening (or more) to your white chocolate to thin it out.  Then work quickly: Even very chilled, some Nutella will get into the white chocolate.  So long as it’s not much, though, it’ll mix right in.

Then throw them on some wax paper to set.  Some decoration really adds to them, such as a light dusting of white sanding sugar, chocolate cookie crumbs, or whatever cute things you have handy.  It doesn’t really matter, because people will love these no matter what.  Trust me on this.  Have I ever steered you wrong?

Don’t answer that.

What Can Brown (Cookies) Do for You?

2 Jan

Chocolate-chips cookies are a holiday staple.  Scratch that: They are a staple, period.  You can, for example, buy chocolate-chip cookie cereal, which is a grain and, according to the MIT food pyramid, one needs six to 11 servings of grains per day to live a wonderful life.  Suck it, gubmint food nannies.

Anyway, despite the fact that I have developed a foolproof, infinitely adaptable chocolate-chip cookie recipe (see here for a maple version), I decided that having had success fiddling around with saturated/unsaturated fat ratios in brownies, I would try to replicate that same, very desirable chew in cookies.  I have been close using combinations of butter and lard, but the chew eventually gives way to softness and while that’s still good, I wanted to bake a cookie that remained chewy over time.

So, here’s what I did, using a standard quick-bread mixing method:

2 c. all-purpose flour
2 c. oatmeal
1 ½ c. dark brown sugar
8 oz. semisweet chips
2 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
Raw sugar for decorating

1 lg egg
2 TBL vanilla
12 TBL butter, melted
2 TBL lard (melted with butter)
2 TBL vegetable oil

These did turn out chewy… after biting through the tortoise-like shell.  What’s more, the dark brown sugar made these things very, very brown and combined with the oatmeal, they tasted a little like granola.  Here’s what I think happened:

Because I was using cooking oil, I omitted some of the ingredients used to soften cookies, thinking that it might be too much, like when I added too much honey to a previous batch.  And while the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats might be right for creating that awesome grocery-store chew, not all saturated fats behave the same.  That’s why and additional egg yolk is often used to soften cookies and encourage some chew.

I also omitted a TBL of corn syrup, also useful for softening and chew, given its hygroscopic properties.  But plainly, one or the other or both should have remained in the recipe.  Or, one of the two, and only one TBL of vegetable oil… you get the idea.  I have to continue experimenting, and I’m just not smart enough to know what will happen, exactly, before I do it.  (Off the top of my head, though, I think the best bet’s to add one egg yolk, and reduce the oil by one TBL.  The egg yolk will emulsify–suspend–the water in the butter and the oil together.)

The quantity of dry ingredients is also just a bit too high, I think, also evidenced by the cookie’s stiffness and granola flavor.  Reducing the flour and oats by a ¼ each would probably do the trick.  The dark brown sugar, which contains a very high quantity of molasses, also added to the granola flavor.  And of course, the ridiculous brown color.

They were still quality cookies, though.  I put them out at the office without owning up to them–they were too brown and I’m too vain–but they were gone in an instant.  But that could also be because, as one of the least favored in my work group, no one knew the cookies came from me.

Sunday Fudgy Sunday

2 Jan

The original plan was to help out an old man with a sweet tooth.  I mean, a real sweet tooth.  I’m not talking about the coworker who cuts a quarter off a muffin with a butter knife, proclaims herself to be naughty, then pukes it up in a bathroom on a different floor.  No, I mean I think that old guy eats sugar packets when we’re not looking.

This makes him an easy target for fudge, seeing as how that stuff, no matter how you make it, is nearly all sugar.  Personally, I’m not much of a fan; the kind I’ve had is the kind of fudge sold in cute country stores and is always, and unrepentantly, dried out.  Can’t figure out why a proprietor would leave a large, uncovered tray of fudge in a refrigerated case.  Transmission fluid would dry out if left uncovered in a refrigerated case.

And traditional fudge can be tricky as it is: Like all candy, the temperature to which you heat your sugar will determine its characteristics and in this, precision is key.  If your candy thermometer is off, your candy will be off.  If your timing is off, your candy will be off.  In this case, heating the sugar component of fudge too high will produce a dry, crumbly fudge, which is how I suspect a lot of fudge is sold at the start.

(On a side note, I would like to meet the people who will pay American dollars for what tastes like candied sand, because boy, have I got some serious rejects available for those fools.)

So while all of this is true, there actually is a very easy way to produce better-than-average fudge without regard to precision, temperature or technique.  I can’t take credit for it; it’s a Cook’s Illustrated recipe that uses sweetened condensed milk, chips, and a little baking soda to add just enough air to keep it from being too dense.  (I’m sorry, but the recipe is not free, so I can’t reproduce it here.  But if you search for “15-Minute Walnut Fudge,” you might get lucky.)

The recipe is in fact so easy, I thought I could substitute just about any flavor chip I wanted to make the fudge.  It’s the sweetened condensed milk and baking soda doing the work, both of which could hide a multitude of sins considering that precision and temperature were not involved.  With that in mind I decided, having made plenty of chocolate fudge for our favorite old guy in the past, I’d make butterscotch fudge for him using butterscotch chips, marshmallows, and chunks of Werther’s.  Pretty damn sugary, that.

This did not work out at all.

First, although the largest constituent of all chips is sugar, all bets are off after that.  Naturally, I didn’t bother to check this or even think about it knowing full well that if the type and amount of fat varies greatly between white and dark chocolate, maybe I ought to check out the content of the butterscotch chips because, you know, they’re not chocolate.  But whatever, right?

The butterscotch chips I used (purchased from Aldi and believe me, that store brings it in sweets department) actually have a remarkably high amount of palm oil in them, nearly as much as the sugar.  If you’ve worked with palm oil, then you know that while it solidifies at room temperature, it’s still very malleable.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s a superb idea to use palm oil for this purpose.  White chocolate coatings will use more palm oil than shortening, making it cheaper and easier to work with; better peanut butters use palm oil instead of shortening, too, to give it that creamy texture.  As for butterscotch chips, there’s a huge gulf in taste between those made with palm oil and those made with shortening.  That said, the crappier-tasting, shortening-laden butterscotch chips would’ve been better suited to making this variety of fudge.  Here’s why.

Once mixed, melted and cooled with the sweetened condensed milk, baking soda, salt and vanilla, it never set properly.  Palm oil, though it’s solid at room temperature, is still 49.2 percent unsaturated fat.  The stuff is, like, half cooking oil, basically.  Combining this with gooey sweetened condensed milk made it impossible for it to set.  Chips made with shortening, which is a fully saturated fat, would probably set up just fine.

Then there were aesthetic issues I didn’t anticipate, but should’ve.  Butterscotch chips are an orange shade of tan and to combat this, I thought adding white marshmallows would add a nice contrast.  Except that the marshmallows ended up coated in orange-tan goo and were too large even in the miniature variety.  This made for orange-tan goo with lumps.

No problem, I thought; these shiny Werther’s chunks I just pulverized with a stubby hammer will look shiny and great even though the bag broke and there’s butterscotch dust everywhere.  Okay, that’s a lie.  “Oh shit!” was what I thought immediately.  But I added the Werther’s bits to the top anyway, which made for orange-tan goo with lumps and chunks.

I pretty much knew there was no hope at this point.  But I thought that maybe I’d get lucky–that cutting into them would reveal this marvelous contrast of colors and textures and regardless of what the tops looked like, maybe that’s what people would see first.  And maybe it would’ve been if my orange-tan goo with lumps and chunks had solidified at all.

Instead, it’s sitting in my uninsulated mudroom, held back in an old Tupperware container like some slimy alien, its nasty gooey arms clinging to the sides as if it’s going to kill me for this when it breaks out.  This fudge could be the end of me.

Please note that despite all this it is ridiculously delicious, so I will do something with it someday.

Xmas Baking for the People I Love

8 Dec

Hello again, my nine readers.  How’ve you been?

I’ve obviously been busy with other projects–other writing–but I’ve almost narrowed down the bakery I’ll be giving to my family and closest friends, which is what they’re getting because I have no money to give them anything else.  I mean, because I care.

The trick to giving bakery as gifts is this: Portability.  Your people need to be able to take your bakery home with them. Freeze it. Pack it in a lunch. Clean the tub with pieces of it shoved in their mouths.  Make it rich, make it pretty, and make it small.

So here’s what I’ve got so far.  Let me know what you think:

  • Some kind of cookie bar topped with meringue: Pretty. Will keep well. Interesting mix of textures.
  • Cookies with some sort of spice combo: Chai-ish, I’m thinking, a bit crispy and half-dipped in, I think, 70 percent bittersweet if I can keep the cookies light in color.
  • Fudge: I know an oldster who loves the stuff, but do I stick with chocolate?  I’m thinking butterscotch, with marshmallows and Werther’s bits.  Real sweet tooth, that guy.
  • Brownie cupcakes with mint patties: My recipe, and my amazing frosting, but credit Martha Stewart for the idea.
  • For the office: Bite-size crispie treats with miniature choc chips, dipped in semisweet. Remember, if it’s for the office, keep it simple.
  • For the office: Nutella sandwiches with pretzel crackers, dipped in white chocolate. (Okay, these are already done and they’re amazing.  I guessed on these. I guessed right.)
  • For the office: Brownies, of course.  They’ve been requested. These I’ll make with an easygoing, natural cocoa, though. Nothing challenging.
  • Cigarettes.

I’ll publish what happens, crap and all, as I go along.  Now as for you, I want your thoughts, your ideas, the stuff you’re baking, questions, complaints… whatever you’ve got.  I’ll be waiting with a whip.

Peanut Butter Cups: I Failed

3 Oct

Update:  I’m just gonna say it.  This looks like a vagina.

Maybe it was because I wasn’t in the mood, or maybe it was because I filled the house with chlorine gas the night before.  I don’t know.  But I performed a thoughtless and poorly planned test of these peanut butter cups.  And it shows.  I’ve attached a photo, and will detail my failure for you this week.

I will take your pity, if you wish to give it.

Yeesh!